Science Fiction


By Susan Forest
Mar 13, 2018 · 4,675 words · 17 minutes

From the author: Moons in systems off the beaten track are never first on anyone’s list to receive supplies. But when the mining colony on 403 Station is hit by a lethal disease, Trine has to make hard decisions about who will receive the medicine, and who must try to recover on their own. When her daughter becomes ill, her choices become harder.

Jorge float-stepped to the door, his face ashen under the night fluorescents, and looked from Katya to Trine. "Thanks, Katya."

"Brought her as fast as I could," Katya said. Her breath puffed in small clouds and frost sparkled on the gray-blonde tufts of hair sticking out along the rim of her reversed cap.

Trine slipped past Jorge into his module, one of the four-hundred-odd boxes scattered throughout the domes of 403 Station.  "Don't know what you're thanking Katya for, Jorge. You know I can't do anything," she said, which was true enough.  Trine bounded gracefully to the end of the short corridor, balancing with her fingertips against the walls. "Your dad in the small bedroom?" she asked. These modules were all the same. Trine had one as well.

"Go on in," Jorge said. "He probably can't talk."

Trine shucked her parka, not unhappy to set aside the paperwork and stretch her legs. Jorge had been calling the main office in panic since he'd driven into communication range from the ore station at Mile Forty-Eight, but after twenty hundred hours, only the computer answered. It was just luck--bad or good--that had kept Katya until this hour, grubby over-alls streaked with oil, still working on that stubborn grocery truck. The twentieth century met the twenty-fifth, out here. 

And Katya happened to pick up.

Trine had been nodding over a report decrying proposed new regulations for outpost administrator qualifications when Katya glided into her office and relayed Jorge's message. Trine checked her watch. Twenty-three hundred. She should have gone home to Jill a couple of hours ago.

"It's old Greg," Katya said. "Think you better come see him.  Jorge says he isn't breathing too good."


"Yep. Something."

Trine powered down her terminal and grabbed her parka. God, she wished there were doctors on these ore stations.

At the main door she punched in the lock sequence and they let themselves fall lightly to the gravel compound. Frost from the moisture of the station inhabitants accumulated on the high metallic dome with every cold-side rotation--about six days--and sometimes it drifted lazily to ground as it did tonight, sparkling in the night fluorescents. Katya and Trine's feet crunched the gravel at long intervals as they ran in slow bounds across the compound. 

They headed into one of the arms that connected the scatter of atmosphere-controlled domes that made up 403 Station. Some mining company put up the first dome about a hundred years ago, later going out of business or abandoning the investment for more profitable finds. Since then, small-time prospectors and drifters, mostly, wound up here, come to make their fortunes, then move on.

The government had sent Trine as their administrator two years ago, and about once a month she toured each of the other half-dozen moons orbiting C-10427. She kept the peace, collected taxes, and acted as doctor, lawyer and occasionally, dentist. The long hours each day away from Jill wasn't what she wanted for her daughter, but after a couple more years in the boonies Trine would be promoted somewhere big enough to have a school, maybe make enough for a live-in nanny. Maybe see a VR dome or eat in a restaurant. That would be fine.

Now, Trine pushed through the doorway to Greg's bedroom and the others crowded in behind. Greg shivered under his blankets, grey hair wisping in every direction from his skull, and the rattle of his breathing echoed off the metallic walls. His gaze locked on Trine.

"Hey, Greg," Trine said. She set herself on the only chair in the room, next to the bed. "Heard you had to come back early after you hauled all those gold nuggets out of the mine. Got enough, did you?" She pulled plastic gloves and a handful of sample containers from the pouch at her side.

Greg nodded, more of a blink of his eyes than any movement that could constrict his throat.

Trine leaned on the arm of her chair and twisted the gooseneck lamp to shine on Greg's face. She took swabs of mucus from his eyes, nose and ears, and skin samples from the back of his hand and labeled them for the lab. "Sorry Greg. Jorge wanted me to have a look at you. I got to say, you look a little grey."

"Those scaly patches're on his chest and legs, too," Jorge said.

"He got a fever?"

"Hundred and two."

Trine leaned back and looked at Katya. "Glad you came right away."

"What is it?" Katya asked.

"Well, it sure isn't a cold, is it?" Trine trashed the gloves and pulled her Dummy from her pouch. She flipped up the screen and keyed in her password. She scrolled through the memos that had come through in the last three weeks. "Here." She read for a moment. "Jorge. Does he have a cough with thick mucus?"

"He was coughing when he came up from the mine."

Trine grimaced, a numbness creeping into her stomach. She read further. "Did you look at his throat? Is it inflamed and swollen? Really red?"

"Not when I checked him at the mine."

"How about now?"

Jorge pushed Greg's bed away from the wall so he could slide up beside him. "Open up, Pops."

Katya pulled a pencil beam from her overalls.

"Jorge. Gloves."

"I ain't gonna get sick, Trine." He leaned over Greg, who opened his mouth.

"Katya, go in the bathroom and find Jorge a pair of gloves."

Jorge groaned. "Stinking bureaucrats." 

"And I don't give a shit if you do get sick, but there's five hundred and seventy-three people on this station, and some of them are kids, like mine. Now, use gloves."

Katya slapped Jorge on the shoulder with a pair of thin gloves. "Come on, Jorge, do as she says. She's the law."

"Judge, jury and executioner." Jorge ignored the gloves and leaned over his father with the pencil light. "Yep. Red throat." He straightened. "What's he got?"

Trine folded the screen on the Dummy and tapped it on her knee. "This isn't good."

Jorge nodded toward the doorway.

"Nah." Trine shook her head. "Greg, I don't know what the hell you got, but there's something going around the trade lanes called DP-41. You don't have to worry. The medicine came on the last government shipment, about two weeks ago. We'll give you a dose of it and see if it clears up, all right?"

Greg's frown vanished and he lifted his hand to grasp Trine's with a grip borne of worry and relief. He swallowed in an effort to speak, but caught himself in a fit of coughing instead.

"I'll read up on it and be back in an hour. You just stay warm and--hey, Greg--keep breathing. Jorge'll be here with you." She gripped his hand and smiled her good-bye, then slipped with a low gravity bounce from the room. 

She turned to speak with the others in the kitchen. "We've got a hell of a problem."

Jorge stopped short. "What? You just said he'd be fine."

"He probably will. Damn. If this was a company town, I'd have the whole thing locked down. Jorge, we know you're exposed.  You're in quarantine."


"Katya, you can go home, but do a complete bio-cleanse and wear gloves and a mask for a while. I don't care if you feel perfectly healthy. I'm going to do the same."

"That bad?" Katya asked.

"No, not with the medicine." Trine flipped open her Dummy.  "But when did you ever see 403 Station first on anyone's list to get anything?"

"What about--without medicine?" Jorge asked. His face paled.

Trine sank into a chair. God, she was tired. It must be past one hundred hours. "According to the memo, it's like a lot of things. Babies and old folks like Greg, need to watch out. Anyone with a compromised immune system or sick from something else."

Katya took off her cap and pushed her hair back. "You mean it can be fatal."

Trine scrolled through her menus. "Yeah. Just like a mining accident."

"And, we don't have enough medicine," Katya said.

"Well, maybe. Depends on how many get sick. Which is why Jorge's in quarantine." She turned to Jorge. "And as soon as you can, Jorge, send me a list of all the shifts that worked your pit in the last two weeks. They're on quarantine, too."

"Two weeks..." Jorge's eyes shifted from Trine to Katya and back to Trine. "It was here--symptom free--for two weeks?"

Katya leaned on the corner of the table. She glanced at Trine. "That's when the last government shipment come."

"The last contact with Outside," Trine said. "My guess is we were infected then."

"Shit, you can't close down the mine, the store, everything."  Jorge ran his hands through his hair. "For how long?"

"Two more weeks."

"But what good will that do?" Katya asked. "We're all infected already--aren't we?"

"Maybe not," Trine said. "Greg and Jorge were at Mile Forty-Eight. We got people scattered around six settlements. Some, we don't see for weeks at a time. If we scrub everything down, keep people quarantined, and just use the medicine for the worst  cases--kids under one year and old geezers like Greg--maybe we've got a shot," Trine said. "Jorge, if you get sick, just stay in bed and eat soup. You'll be fine."

"Says you."

"Says the Quadrant Health Authority."

"Meanwhile, my mine loses fifty thousand a day." Jorge kicked the jacket on the floor into the boots in the entry.

"Better that than even one miner dying," Katya said.

"I'll send out a general alert and get some volunteers to distribute supplies so people don't have to come in to the Hub for food," Trine said. "And I'll shut down public transit."

"Lots of people in outlying areas have their own hydrocars," Katya pointed out. "Some don't log on for days. That's why they live out here on this rock. They don't like people."

Trine flipped her Dummy closed. "I know."



When Trine got back to her office, seventeen calls were logged on to her computer. She worked through the night putting together a mobilization plan, and before the dome fluorescents faked dawn, started calling those who could help. Katya was one of the few in the central Hub who didn't show symptoms in the first few days of the outbreak, and she became one of Trine's deputies. 

Trine doled out the medicine only to those who fit a strict set of criteria. For a week, she was scared that they would be facing funerals before the ordeal was over, but unlike the story on lots of other planets, people on 403 Station got sick, stayed in bed, and got better. The station began to recuperate, and Trine cut back to ten-hour days.

Then the second wave hit. 

Calls came from stations on each of the moons of C10427. She sent them the protocols and fifty doses of medicine, and followed up with a visit to assign deputies and handle emergencies. 

While she was gone, a man, an alcoholic of sixty-seven, died.  His profile hadn't fit the criteria, so he was given no medicine, and his wife threatened to sue. Two more deaths followed. 

Trine cut short her tour and hurried home. 

Katya's grandson, just over two years old, was the first of the children to die.



Trine double-checked her Dummy as the supply truck drove away from the Hub warehouse. Although the station was in its second day of warm-side, the distant sun shed little light and less heat to penetrate the translucent panels on the domes. She rubbed her neck and stretched, pulling her eyes from the rows of tiny numbers on her Dummy to rest on the length of compound to the dome wall. Someone was approaching from one of the tunnels.

Her stomach tightened.

It was Katya. Lipstick, carefully curled hair and black dress pants struck Trine as incongruent with a mine jacket and boots until she realized why Katya had dressed up.

Trine lowered her Dummy, her mouth dry. 

Katya's head bobbed in a short nod as she stopped beside Trine.

Trine's tongue felt stiff, as though she hadn't used it for a long time. "I wanted to come to the ceremony."

"I know," Katya said. "The outbreak. You were busy."

"There are still so many. Ninety-three. A fifth of the station."


A slight breeze from the circulation system teased Katya's hair. She looked tired. Old. 

"How many doses left?" Katya's voice was casual, but the pain in her glance belied her words.

Trine pressed her lips together. "Twenty-one. We've re-done the protocols, Katya. Medicine's only for kids under three, now."

Katya nodded, her head barely moving, eyes not leaving Trine.  "What will you do, Trine, if there is medicine left? If you could have saved some of the ones who died, but didn't?"

Trine held her gaze, her nostrils wide, trying to find air as her throat shut down. "I'm so sorry, Katya..."

Katya repeated her close-lipped nod as though this were the only action left. "Yes," she whispered hoarsely. "I know." She turned from Trine.


"I'm sorry, I can't talk to you right now." 

Trine grabbed her arm. "We've made children a priority."

"You have," Katya snapped. "Not 'we'."

Trine felt slapped. 


"No, you're right. I have. It was me." She wanted to wrap her arms about Katya, hold her like a child, but she couldn't. A formality, a rigidity lay between them.

"The last doses..." Trine tried again to soothe Katya's anguish. "None will be for the old. Children. Just children."

Katya dropped her gaze. "A little late," she said bitterly.

Trine took her hand from Katya's arm. "I'm sorry."

Katya let a deep breath escape. "I have to go."

Trine held herself from following as Katya shuffled toward the tunnel.




Trine pulled her head from the covers, instantly awake.

Jill stood beside the bed, her white nightie reflecting a shred of fluorescent glow from beyond the curtained windows.

An ache, like a great weight, pressed on Trine's shoulders, neck and head--the remains of the day's exhaustion. "Come on, honey," she said. She stretched out her arm to make a cave of her covers. "Come in with me. It's cold. Did you have a dream?"

The girl scampered into bed. She shivered and pressed burning skin up against Trine's body. Tears streamed from her eyes and nose. "It hurts." She coughed.

Trine's back and shoulders bunched and her breath collapsed from her chest. Wait--she told herself not to panic. None of the babysitter's kids were sick.

She raised herself on one elbow to peer down onto Jill's face in the dark. She found a tissue to wipe her daughter's eyes and nose, and held the back of her hand to her cheek. "Where does it hurt, baby?" She fumbled on the bedside table for the lamp switch.

"Everywhere. My neck." She coughed again.

Trine switched on the lamp and Jill squeezed her eyes shut, turning her face into Trine's chest. "Come on, baby, I need to look in your throat."

The child turned back and obediently opened her mouth, eyes screwed shut and cheeks flaming. The throat was red and raw, with grey patches. Trine flicked the light off and held her daughter close, heart pounding with fear.

"It hurts, Mommy," Jill whispered again.

"I know, baby." Trine took a deep breath and forced herself to think logically. Jill was three years old, almost four. There was a good chance she would be fine with rest and symptom management. "Listen, honey, I'm going to get you a drink to make your throat feel better, and a pill so you're not so hot, okay?  Then let's have a really good sleep. You can sleep as much as you like. I'll call Mrs. Ahenda, and you can stay home with me tomorrow."

Jill cuddled closer. "I love you a million million."

"I love you, too. Up to the sky."



Trine called Katya in the morning to put herself on quarantine. Jill slept, for which Trine was grateful. She cleaned the house, read, checked Jill. The anti-pyretics reduced the fever and the cough lessened. Trine logged on to her Dummy to keep connected with work.

Predictably, Trine began to cough that afternoon as she played cards with Jill. She felt rotten, but she only had herself and Jill to care for. Katya and the others kept up with the work as well as anyone could. A hundred and sixteen cases had been reported, and two more deaths. The Quadrant Health Authority promised more medicine next week, but right now they said too many planets were affected. Administer water in any form--by mouth, in food or as a vapor--and provide symptomatic relief, they said.  Hold on.

At two in the morning, Jill threw up. Trine climbed from her bed and changed the sheets, wiping the floor and leaving the towels in the laundry for morning. She couldn't give her an anti-pyretic because the child had had one at midnight, so she gave her a cool bath. She wrapped Jill in towels and cuddled her daughter until her sobs subsided and she fell asleep. 

At three-thirty, Jill threw up the water Trine had given her. Trine put her hands to her daughter's burning face and peered into her fever-bright eyes. She brought her into her own bed, but didn't sleep. Visions played through her head, of Katya's face on the monitor as she told Trine about her grand-son's death; of Jill's pale skin and trusting eyes; of the safe, hospital isoenvironments and attentive doctors she let slip away when she took the post on this barren rock.

At four-forty-five Jill woke and heaved on an empty stomach, breathing noisily. Trine made her sit up and looked in her throat. The grey scales covered her throat and Trine found that they had spread to her stomach and back. Trine tried to give her an anti-pyretic, but she couldn't swallow. She sang to Jill and held her and watched her. Jill didn't fit the criteria for medicine.

What if there was medicine left after the outbreak passed? Two days ago, there had been twenty-one doses.

Trine calculated in her head. The epidemic had begun just over three weeks ago. According to the memos, individuals were only sick for a week, not more. How many more would become sick now? How many of those would be critical? The sick ones were recovering and the rest had proved they weren't going to get it. Most of the rest. More medicine would be here in a week. 

How would she feel if there was medicine left over?

Jill gasped, strangling. Her eyes went round with panic.  She struggled with the sheets, tried to flee the bed.

"Hush, baby, hush," Trine soothed. "Stay still. Look at me."  She stroked Jill's arms and face until she quieted. "Don't cry, baby. I'm going to get you a nice drink. I'll be right back."

She disengaged herself from Jill's grasp and slipped from the room. She discarded her clothes and found herself a bio suit with mask and gloves. 

No one was in the compound at five in the morning, but the sun shone as brightly as ever through the dome panels, fifth day into warm-side. Trine put her head down and float-walked in as un-hurried and business-like a way as she could to the office complex. She ungloved and flicked her palm on the pad to unlock the outer door.

The corridor was dimly lit and hollow-sounding through the muffling of the bio-suit masking. 

A light was on in the main office.

Trine approached softly, looking through the glass door.  Katya sat at a computer.

She hesitated. 

Katya looked up from her slow keyboarding and saw Trine through the glass.

There was nothing to do but proceed. Trine unlocked the door and entered.


"Katya. You're here early."

"You shouldn't be here. It's been less than a day."

Trine went to her inner office. "Couldn't sleep. Thought I could take some work home. Don't worry, I won't disturb anyone.  Got the bio-suit." She keyed in her password and the door opened.

Katya turned at her station and watched as Trine entered her office.

Once inside, Trine took a breath. The medicine was in the storage room next to her office. She looked at the piles of mem-chips on her desk, sorted through a few of them but couldn't focus on which ones to bring home. Shit, they all needed work. She shoved them into a brief case and clicked it shut. 

Now, what? What excuse to get into the supply room? Three weeks ago, Katya didn't have the authority to go in there. Now she sat in the front office like a watch dog.

Trine moved from her office to the supply room. She knew Katya was watching her. 

The medicine was in a locked cabinet. Trine pressed her thumb on the fingerprint recognition panel. There was a click. She opened the cabinet door.

Four doses of medicine sat on the shelf.


Trine took one and slipped it into her pocket. She closed the cabinet and pressed her thumb on the panel. She heard the lock click.

She breathed.

"Can I get you anything?"

"No, that's fine."

She scanned the shelves. Panic rose in her stomach. What else was in the supply room? Blank mem-chips of different sizes, platinum thread, replacement hydro cells, clips, Dummy packs. She took three of the large blank mem-chips.

 She turned. Katya stood by the computer in the main office, looking at her.

Trine float-stepped from the supply room, closing the door behind her. She stopped at the reception desk and locked eyes with Katya. "Needed some of the big mem-chips." Trine held them up, but Katya didn't look at them. "Big report..."

Katya shook her head ever so slightly. A cold sheen crept into her eyes. "Yeah."

Trine held her gaze, her heart thumping. "Jill is pretty sick." 

Katya's lips whitened. "Better get back to her."

Trine's cheeks burned beneath the bio-suit. "Yeah." 



The government transport stood on the pad, gleaming in the huge lights used during dark side launches. Trine showed her exit visa to the captain and crew at the dome air lock. A car waited to take her and the last few passengers from the dome to the gantry.

"Everyone at the Quadrant Office is shaking their heads, you know," Pete said. He leaned an elbow on the car. "No one wants you to go, Trine."


Trine tucked her official mem-chip into her bag and looked back at the hub, the cluster of dwellings and warehouses. The administration building. She hadn't spoken to Katya since that night.

Katya tried. She'd called Trine the next day but Trine let the computer answer. She called the day after, and the one after that and the one after that. She finally got the hint. 

Jorge was more direct. He stopped by the administrative office once Trine was back to work and surrounded by every excuse to close her office door. He talked his way past the secretary and slumped into the chair opposite her desk.

"Mine's back in operation," he said by way of chit chat.  "Sending ore to the refinery."

Trine looked up from her screen and tried to pull on her polite, official smile for him. "I know." She tapped the computer.  "Got the memos."

He nodded. Smiled.

He knew. Everyone knew. Katya hadn't told, but they could count. They could see Jill get suddenly well. And they were all so damn solicitous. 

Trine looked down at her fingertips. Her smile felt stiff.


She waited.

Jorge didn't budge from the chair.

"That's good." She hunted among her mem-chips for a stylus.

"Men are all back at work."

Trine felt as though her smile was going to crack.


He smiled.

Rage boiled up inside her. "Jorge," she said, swallowing her anger back, "can I do anything for you?" She forced her bureaucratic smile up to meet his eyes.

"Nothing you ain't already done. My dad's fine. Wanted to thank you."

Trine felt heat spill into her face. She pressed her lips closed on her smile and focused on breathing evenly.

Jorge leaned forward in his chair. "Trine, Katya wants to talk to you."

"You know, Jorge, I know that," Trine said as quickly as she could, sorting through her mem-chips, "and I do mean to get back to her as soon as I can clear up some of this backlog--"

"She ain't gonna bite you, Trine. You did what you could--"

Trine stood. "Jorge, I got a lot--" 

He climbed to his feet and leaned on the desk. "There were three doses medicine left--after all was said and done--wasn't there? Did you want four gone to waste instead of three? And after all you did for everyone--"

"Jorge, you're going to have to go now." She held the door for him, the cracking sensation spreading from her stomach to her throat. She kept her eyes steadily at his feet. 

"--who could blame you if..."

She held the doorknob rigidly, wishing her ragged breathing were not audible to the next moon.

"Damn it, Trine!"

The secretary looked up.

Jorge raised his hands as though he were going to shake her by the shoulders but she huddled by the door gulping and swallowing, unable to look at him.

"You're not perfect! All right?"

She trembled, her face streaming.

"That's all Katya wanted to tell you. That's all anyone wanted to tell you. It's all right."

Trine shook her head. No. No.

"Blast it, woman!"

"Trine?" the secretary called. 

Trine took one long, shuddering breath. No.

"Never mind, I was just leaving." Jorge threw his hands down to his sides in impotent rage. "Rules is just rules, Trine. You made up that rule about babies and old folks. Things change. You didn't need to try to let Jill die just to show you're fair."

No.  Not two separate sets of rules--one for Trine, one for everyone else. When you lose integrity, you lose everything.  You lose your self.

She listened as his footsteps marched across the outer office and down the corridor. She listened to the silence she knew was filled with eyes--her secretary, the delivery boy, the clerk from across the hall, the truckers, the miners, the drifters, the children, the...

Wherever she went, she felt them. Eyes, watching.

Trine wasn't sure how she had managed the last three weeks until her resignation could be processed. But after Jorge, no one invaded her privacy again.

Pete was different. He was from Outside. He didn't know.

"I wish you'd reconsider staying," he said.

"No, Pete. I've made up my mind."

"Yeah, but Trine, you're a great administrator. Just look at this infection that swept through our sector last month. Some stations had riots. At some, half the colonists were wiped out. You had fewer than twenty mortalities. Another year and you would've qualified for a post in the Inner Complex. You ever been there?"

"I've seen vids."

"There's nothing like it. Trae has people from every system. And Thena--you should see the food! Fashions from everywhere across the galaxy. Biotic nanotech. Or Sepa Two. It's like living inside an acceleration tube. You'd never sleep in case you missed something. Trine, think about it. Money. City life. Great projects to work on. Hey! Private school for your little girl."

Trine shrugged. If she didn't reply he might stop talking and get on with it. Getting away felt like an itch under her skin. She could see the rocket, there, waiting, so close. She looked back at the lonely cluster of buildings. Katya was in one of them.

Trine opened the door to the car and Jill hopped in. Safe.


"What are you going to do, then?"

"I don't know." She climbed in beside Jill. "Live."

This story originally appeared in Asimov's.

Susan Forest

Thought-provoking science fiction that examines social causes.